“How much can you bench?”
Who among us hasn’t heard that question, especially from guys who either never go to the gym, or who are so wrapped up in their fragile egos that they refuse to discover the true secrets of efficient muscle development? Training to build a fantastic chest isn’t about heavy single-rep bench presses. It’s about understanding how the chest muscles truly work and coming up with an intelligent and focused strategy for positive change. In other words, if you want a great chest, leave the bench-pressing ego to others and take a far more intelligent road to success. First step: Build your knowledge.
Two Main Functions
The chest muscles perform two main functions. The first involves pushing the body away from something. A push-up would be a good example of this function. With a push-up, you are literally pushing your body away from the floor and the chest muscles act as the primary moving force. The contraction point is when your arms are extended fully and your chest is flexed. On almost every exercise you work primary and secondary muscles. With chest-pressing movements (exercises similar to push-ups except that you’re pushing something away from the body, as with a bench press), the primary muscle is the chest, but there are also two joint movements involved – that of the elbow joint and the shoulder joint. The supportive muscles of the triceps and deltoid come into play and become secondary muscles being worked. The key focus of a chest pressing exercise should be on the chest, but these secondary muscles inevitably get some work also.
Chest pressing exercises can be done from a wide variety of angles from incline to flat to decline, but particular emphasis should be given to incline movements as the upper chest is the most difficult area for most men to truly feel and develop.
The second main function of the chest involves drawing the arms across the front of the body. If you stand with your arms extended out to the sides, then move your arms forward until your hands push together in front of your chest, and you will feel the contraction point of this second chest function. This is the action involved in dumbbell flye-type movements, which would also include variations such as pec-deck and cable crossovers. When doing these types of movements, the triceps and deltoids play a much smaller secondary role. In fact, it’s important on these exercises to keep your elbows in a slightly bent position throughout the full range of motion of the exercise, from stretch through contraction. Locking your elbows out straight during a flye-type movement only invites serious injury, especially during the stretching portion of the exercise, as when the dumbbells are lowered in an arc out and away from the body.
Far and away, the greatest injury prevention of all when weight training is exercise perfection. This entails learning the absolute perfect form of each exercise and focusing all your effort on maintaining that perfect form throughout each set. Your fullest attention should be on finding the absolute feel of the exercise – the feeling of a full, squeezing contraction, followed by a perfect arc toward a focused and controlled stretch; performing each rep with control and concentration.
When doing any chest exercise, it’s also essential to keep your shoulders in their natural position. Many men tend to push their shoulders forward with the weight during the contraction of a movement and this prevents the chest muscles from fully contracting by throwing emphasis on the front deltoids. Instead, you should use your mind while moving into the contraction of the exercise to focus on flexing only the chest muscles. Each repetition of any pressing or flye-type movement should end with a solid chest contraction. Also, your chest should be lifted by slightly expanding the rib cage. But be cautious not to over-arch the spine (as some men do when trying to bench press way too much weight), as this also takes the contraction away from the target muscle and can lead to debilitating injury.
In addition to exercise perfection and intense focus during the exercise, building a great chest also requires an attack from a variety of angles, using a mix of pressing and flye movements. Also use a wide range of repetitions – anywhere from eight to 15 reps per set – always working in perfect form toward positive failure. This means the last repetition you do on a set (with your own strength and without over-using those frequently abused forced reps) is the last one you can possibly do without sacrificing exercise form.
Build your workouts around three exercises, using three or four fully focused sets each, and shake it up from one workout to the next by using your knowledge and experience to consistently vary your routines.
Use these guiding principles with focus, discipline and consistency and before you know it, you’ll have the chest you’ve always wanted.
Incline Barbell Press
Using a 35- to 45-degree incline bench, grip the barbell slightly beyond shoulder width. With arms fully extended, begin by contracting your chest for a moment and then slowly lower the bar to the top of your clavicle. Keep both elbows pulled back so they’re in line with the shoulder joint – and directly under your hands – throughout the movement. Push the bar back to a full contraction by focusing on pushing with your chest muscles.
Incline Dumbbell Press
This exercise is essentially similar to the barbell press, but during contractions, press the ends of the dumbbells together to increase the intensity of the squeeze. Keep your elbows pulled back in line, shoulders in their natural position, rib cage slightly lifted and lower the inside edge of the dumbbells just outside your armpits.
Flat Dumbbell Press
Press the ends of the dumbbells together during an intense contraction and slowly lower the dumbbells so that their inside edge comes within an inch or two of your armpit.
Dips can be performed to emphasize either the chest or the triceps. For chest, flare your elbows out slightly and roll your head forward so your chin comes toward your chest. Begin at the top with arms extended and don’t lower your body until you have found the absolute squeeze in your chest muscles. Then lower your body with slow control and feel the full stretch across your chest.
Place hands at shoulder width and straighten your arms so your chest muscles are flexed. Keep your entire body – from ankles to shoulders – in a rigid straight line. Flare your elbows out slightly and lower your upper body to the floor without bending at the waist. Pause in the stretch position for a moment, and then push your body away from the floor by contracting your chest muscles.
Flat Dumbbell Flye
Lying on a flat bench, hold the dumbbells above your chest with the ends touching. Bend your elbows slightly and maintain this angle while lowering the dumbbells out in a perpendicular arc away from your body. At the bottom stretch point, your elbows and hands should be in a straight line with your shoulders. Keep tension on your chest muscles even at the bottom of the stretch and use your chest to squeeze the dumbbells back together.
Incline Dumbbell Flye
Essentially, this is the same as a flat flye except it’s performed on a 35- to 45-degree incline bench. Focus the contractions on your upper chest by lifting your rib cage slightly without over-arching your spine. With arms locked in a slightly bent position throughout the movement, have the dumbbells touch together at arms length above your face.
Adjust the seat height so your hands and elbows extend forward on a flat plane with your shoulder joint. With elbows slightly bent, bring the handles together and squeeze your chest muscles hard, finding the full contraction. Keeping your elbows locked in a slightly bent position, slowly let the weight stretch your arms back and then smoothly use your chest to return to contraction.
Using the high pulleys, bend slightly at the waist so your chest is pushed forward. Be sure your shoulders are down in their natural position, not shrugged up into your ears. Begin by extending your arms and squeezing your chest. Then let the weight stretch your arms back in a controlled arc until your hands are on a flat plane with your shoulders. Feel the stretch across your whole chest and then draw your arms forward by contracting your chest and bringing your hands together.